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Nearly all Senate Democrats running for president in 2020 have embraced a massive overhaul of how students pay for college.
Four of the six senators in the Democratic primary co-sponsored legislation aiming to make public college debt-free, which Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, introduced Wednesday. Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have all backed the plan. While Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent running for president as a Democrat, was not among the initial co-sponsors, he has put forth his own plan to make public colleges and universities tuition-free.
Only one senator in the race has not endorsed either the Schatz or Sanders proposals: Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. It fits with the Midwestern Democrat's strategy of casting herself as a more middle-of-the-road alternative to her colleagues.
With the exception of former Vice President Joe Biden, who has not yet entered the race, the candidates near the top of early Democratic primary polls have generally been senators.
The Schatz plan, first proposed last year, would allow participating states to receive federal money matching the amount they give to state colleges. To get those funds, they would have to commit to helping students cover the full cost of attendance — not just tuition — without taking on debt.
In putting the bill forward, Schatz said, "We need to focus on the real cost to students and their families" if "we are going to be serious about solving the student loan debt crisis." The proposal comes as some lawmakers and activists push to address the mounting student debt crisis. It does not offer a cost estimate.
The U.S. student debt burden topped $1.5 trillion by the fourth quarter of last year, according to the Federal Reserve. Research has found the mountain of debt has affected other parts of the economy, including homeownership.
The Democratic primary will in part be defined by how far candidates want to move toward solving problems, and how quickly. Fault lines have already emerged on issues from student loans to health care.
Klobuchar, considered one of the more centrist candidates in the race, has embraced what she considers a more pragmatic solution. Asked last month about the Sanders plan, Klobuchar said, "I am not for free four-year college for all."
She worried about the cost of such a plan — potentially tens of billions of dollars per year.
"I wish — if I was a magic genie and could give that to everyone and we could afford it, I would," she said at a CNN town hall event.
Klobuchar has pushed for up to two years of free community college and the expansion of Pell Grants. She has also supported allowing borrowers to refinance student loans at lower rates and backed expanded tax credits for education after high school.